Controlling Passion: Fire as Emotion and Desire

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(This is a simul-post with Ignitum Today)

Remember that series we started? With this handy-dandy little reference sheet? Well, you’ll probably need the Fire Nation blurb for this post.

In the Avatar universe, fire plays the role of energy and passion, requiring balance and control to keep it from devouring everything in its path—and ultimately devouring itself. The fire-bender characters met in the series are often acutely aware of this and, by their attitude toward fire and fire-bending, serve as examples of different responses to the power and pull of our passions. The character known as the Deserter (properly called Jeong Jeong), a Fire Nation general-turned-hermit, captures the problem of the passions in his lament: fire is a powerful force with great creative potential and a pivotal role in human life; yet its very use predisposes the fire-bender to yield a little more room to fire. Without the proper discipline and moderation, even the best-intentioned and most vigilant bender could cause great destruction, even self-destruction. So too, the human passions are a great good and indispensible to human life; yet if simply yielded to passively at each opportunity, emotion and desire alone would certainly lead someone astray into great harm.

Some of Aang’s first attempts to fire-bend serve as a good example of this danger. In his need to master fire-bending in order to fulfill his mission as the Avatar, Aang seeks out the aforementioned Deserter, a great fire-bending master, to teach him this art. When Aang finally finds the Deserter and makes his request, the hermit reveal’s the great danger that comes from someone playing with fire. For someone like carefree Aang, childlike and sometimes childish, the power of fire would simply be too great to trifle with; for someone with less pure intentions, the consequences could be even graver. On these grounds, the Deserter initially refuses; but after great insistence, Aang finally secures the Deserter’s help, on the condition that Aang train with unrelenting discipline.

So far so good! After much training, Aang learns to control his breath.  (For the most part.) Under constant pressure from Aang to be allowed to play with fire, the Deserter leaves him with an ember, burning a hole through the middle of a leaf which, in true Japanese style, Aang is to keep from burning out to the edges.  In his excitement, Aang expands the ember into a whole flame and begins to manipulate it freely and playfully. Katara, who stands nearby watching, recognizes the danger Aang is playing with and warns him; but her words of caution fall upon deaf ears until Aang accidentally burns her hands with his fire-bending tricks.

Such an example of the danger that comes with fire-bending may not be so serious; in fact, Katara is able to heal herself with a water-bending technique she soon discovers. But, for fire-bending and the human passions alike, a more unhinged person might let loose something much graver through rampant desire and emotion. Admiral Zhao, the Fire-Nation leader of great ambition, personifies this more serious danger in his obsessive hunt for the Avatar—much like the imperialism of the Fire Nation as a whole. In the climax of the same Deserter episode, Admiral Zhao tracks Aang down to the Deserter’s location and leads a group of Fire-Nation gunboats to secure both fugitives—a perfect means to satisfy his ambitions. But when Aang confronts Zhao, he shows himself to have learned his lesson as well as he shows Zhao to be self-destructive in his heedlessness: by simply allowing Zhao to expend himself in fire-bending attacks, avoiding them with graceful control, Aang successfully leads Zhao to destroy his own ships with his reckless assault. In this way, the inferno of unchecked passion or fire-bending ultimately undermines and extinguishes itself.

The dangers of unrestrained emotion or desire are thusly displayed in fire-bending. However, more positive examples of properly cultivated passion exist as well. The Deserter, in his great sorrow over the rampant destruction caused by fire-bending, shows a path of self-denial and resignation in his refusal to fire-bend except for the most serious reasons. On the other hand, Uncle Iroh leads a more harmonious life as a fire-bender, informed by well-ordered passions. Far from abandoning the art of fire-bending, Uncle Iroh perfects it in his mastery of lightning-bending, a very demanding technique possible only for the most disciplined masters. Yet this expertise does not come from heedless indulgence but from great self-mastery: a trait also on display in Uncle Iroh’s personality as a whole. Rather than fixating upon the great objects of ambition common to the series’ unbalanced firebenders—power and wealth and honors—Uncle Iroh is most memorable for his great Chestertonian appreciation for the simplest of goods: innocent pleasures like a cup of tea or a game of pai sho. So too does his humble demeanor, good-humored and self-effacing, contrast sharply with the feverish personalities of Admiral Zhao or Fire Lord Ozai, who are so consumed by self-destructiveness and self-import. In these ways Iroh shows that with fire-bending—like the human passions—rather than needing to be unequivocally renounced altogether or extinguished, a life of full flourishing embraces both the intensities of emotion and desire as well as the fundamental vision of the true good needed to shape these into a force which can be genuinely creative.

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